Thursday, September 21, 2006

Caveat Online Bill Payer

The Good

  • Expedience
    Take 5 minutes to pay a bill online, and say good-bye to the days of misdirected mail and last-minute runs to the post office for stamps at 5 pm. And, if you don't have free checks (e.g. WaMu's lifetime free checks), it saves you a few checks a month, not to mention 39-cents per mailing.
  • Clarity
    You can line up your receipts and check your statement online, and you can also pull up old statements quickly and print them for your records as needed.
  • Save
    ...on late fees by setting up an email reminder for when your statement is available online, and/or a reminder for when your payment is due.
  • Instant Gratification
    You get immediate confirmation of your payment (frankly, my id really enjoys this).

However, before putting confidential personal information online, you should definitely keep some things in mind...

The Bad

  • Use a secure internet connection
    I don't pretend to be a computer whiz, so read PC Magazine, check PCWorld, do whatever you need to do to secure your computer!
  • Manual vs. Automatic
    I log on periodically (read: daily) to check the charges on my credit card bill, and I pay manually instead of scheduling automatic payments. This lets me make sure that my checking account can cover the bill. For the same reason, I don't recommend automatic billpay for any bill where the figures change monthly...its too fraught with potential for disaster for my taste.

The Ugly

At the beginning of July, I scheduled a credit card payment to be processed three weeks hence, on the exact date that my bill was due. On the morning of the due date, I logged in to check the payment status, but the scheduled payments log had no record of my scheduled payment! Telling myself not to panic, I waited until the end of the business day and checked again, but again, the bill was not paid, and my scheduled payment was still lost without a trace.

In the calm before the storm, I called the Citicards hotline, and was connected to a cordial - if poorly informed - Citibank rep, who could not explain why the scheduled payment had disappeared, but would "allow me to pay the bill over the phone." He even waived the fee for over-the-phone payment. Problem solved, right? Wrong.

The next day, I log on to discover that I have double-paid my credit card. Over $3000 had been withdrawn from my checking account. I was just lucky that I had enough in my checking account to cover it! So I call Citicards to demand an explanation, and all the rep of the day can tell me is that his fellow rep was poorly informed and that he could cut me a check or just leave the credit on my Citi account. What a mess! But it'd have been infinitely worse if I didn't have enough in my account to cover double-paying. Couldn't Citibank post a note to paranoid cardholders that they should not panic when the scheduled payment "disappears" and that people should definitely not double pay?

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